British Prime Minister David Cameron was forced into backing off on his choice to join US and French plans to punish Syria for a chemical weapon attack. Only two days ago, on 28 August, 2013, Prime Minister David Cameron’s plans for an imminent military strike on Syria were in disarray, after a revolt by lawmakers warning him to heed the “lessons of Iraq.”

After imploring the world not to stand idly by over Syria’s suspected use of chemical weapons, Cameron was forced into an awkward backing down position on the next day, on 29th August, when the opposition Labour party and lawmakers in his own party said they wanted more evidence before voting for military action. As such on Thursday, 30” August, Cameron’s government published legal advice it had been given which it said showed it was legally entitled to take military action against Syria even if the United Nations Security Council blocked such action.

To support its declared military action it also published intelligence material on last week’s chemical weapons attack in Syria, saying there was no doubt that such:

i    An attack had taken place and that

i    It was “highly likely” that the Syrian government had been behind the apparent poison gas attack that had killed hundreds. But it must be kept in mind that the prime difficulty before the British Premier’s action is the presence in Cameron’s steps is the memory of events a decade ago, when Britain helped the United States to invade Iraq after asserting wrongly, as it later turned out that President Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Britain, already embroiled in Afghanistan, was involved into a second quagmire and lost 179 troops in eight years of war after Iraq descended into savage sectarian conflict. It was the defining moment of Tony Blair’s 1997-2007 premiership, provoking huge protests, divisions within his Labour Party and accusations that his government misled the public by manufacturing the case for war.

Public opposition: The potent legacy of Iraq is reflected not only in party politics, but in public opinion surveys.

In the UK the political poll by You.Gov published on Thursday showed opposition to action hardening, with 51 percent of the British public opposing a missile strike on Syria, and just 22 percent in favor of it. Opponents say Britain has neither the money nor the evidence to justify further military action in the Middle East. “We do not have a great track record of intervention. There is no appetite for it in the country or really in the House of Commons,” said Andrew Bridgen, a lawmaker from Cameron’s Conservative party who opposes immediate military action.

After hours of negotiations between Cameron’s political managers and the opposition, his office agreed that the United Nations Security Council should see findings from chemical weapons inspectors before it responded militarily and that parliament should hold two votes on military action. That means that parliament will vote on August 30, 2013 on a government motion cautioning President Bashar Assad and authorizing military action in principle only. It will need to vote again to authorize any direct military action, and Labour has tabled an amendment and said it will vote against the government. Syria wrote letters to British lawmakers urging them to avoid reckless action.

Under the applicable rules of British Constitutional laws, Cameron, who has the powers of a commander-in-chief, does not technically need Parliament’s support to order military action. But after tabling a debate and facing such a revolt, it would be politically impossible for him to go against lawmakers’ wishes. “The motion that we’re putting forward ... reflects the Prime Minister’s recognition of the deep concerns in this country about what happened over Iraq,” said Foreign Secretary William Hague.

Britain is to send six RAF Typhoon air-to-air interceptor jets to its Akrotiri base in Cyprus Thursday, the Ministry of Defense said. Cyprus is just 62 miles from the Syrian coast. Britain also has warships in the Mediterranean.

But the question still needs a considered response: what good will come out of a limited war against Syria? I have yet to see a single competent analysis that all this will change anything in drastic manner on the ground realities that currently exist there.

Perhaps realizing all this the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has sought more time for inspectors to complete their work, a step that could delay any strike as allies would be unlikely to attack with UN weapons inspectors on the ground. More or less similarly Labour’s Miliband said. “One of the most important lessons of Iraq is to give the United Nations the proper chance to do its work and I believe if we had tried to make that decision today on military action we wouldn’t have been giving the United Nations the proper time to do that work.”

I therefore do not think that there exists a genuine case of war in Syria on this account alone.


The writer is barrister at law (US and UK), senior advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and professor at Harvard University.